History of US Space Program Term Paper

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Space Program

When the Soviets successfully launched Sputnik I, the first ever artificial satellite, in orbit on October 4, 1957, the event took the Americans and the entire western world by surprise. Sputnik I was just a 2-foot sphere with nothing more than two tiny radio transmitters on it, but the symbolic significance of the event -- the implication that Communist Russia had taken a significant technological lead over the United States was a massive blow to the American nation's pride. It signaled the start of the Cold War space-race between the two major super powers of the time and developed into a race for putting the first man on the moon that culminated in the historic "giant leap for mankind" on July 20, 1969 when Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. This paper focuses on the history of the U.S. Space Program, the role of the people and agencies that were responsible for starting and developing the program, how the rivalry with the Soviet affected the program, the significance and benefits (if any) of space exploration, the future of the space program and its usefulness.


The precursor of the Space Programs, of both the United States and the U.S.S.R., was the development of the rocket development program in Nazi Germany during the World War II. After the War, the German engineer Wernher Von Braun led a team that developed a series of rockets in the U.S. that helped to launch the U.S. space and the ballistic missile programs. The U.S.S.R. also had a team of German expatriate scientists working on rockets and missiles that helped the country develop medium-range ballistic missile by the mid fifties and the first inter-continental missile by 1957 that was capable of delivering nuclear warheads anywhere in the world including the United States. It was this military capability of the Soviets, rather than just the launching of the first artificial satellite into space that alarmed the American military and political leadership most (although the symbolic value of Sputnik's launch was no less significant). The propaganda ploy of the Soviets who used the launching of the first satellite as proof of the superiority of the communist system over the "decadent" capitalism stung the U.S. administration into taking emergency measures to match the perceived "missile gap" between the two powers. Frantic efforts were made to launch the first U.S. satellite: the initial U.S. satellite launch attempt on December 6, 1957 failed disastrously when the Vanguard launch rocket exploded moments after liftoff plunging the nation into further gloom. Success, however, came with the launch of the satellite Explorer 1 on January 31, 1958. Meanwhile, President Eisenhower submitted a bill to Congress that was quickly passed and signed into law in late July, creating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). NASA was entrusted with the task of consolidating all of the nation's diverse programs in space exploration with the objective of putting a man in orbit. (Koman; "History of the Space Programme.")

The Space Race Becomes a Political Issue

In the early stages of the "space race," the Soviet Union held the edge and the Eisenhower administration, perhaps realizing this fact, played down the idea of a space race between the two countries. Khrushchev, the Soviet PM at the time, while seeking detente with the West gloated in his country's lead in space exploration and embarrassed the U.S. with more high profile successes in space.

In 1958, both countries were trying to be the first to send a satellite to the moon. The Soviets once again managed to launch the first object (Luna 1) to leave the earth's orbit on January 2, 1959. The achievement was followed by further successes: on September 14, 1959, Luna 2 became the first artificial object to strike the Moon; in October 1959 Luna 3 flew around the Moon and radioed the first pictures of the far side of the Moon, which is not visible from Earth. Before that (on November 3, 1957) the Soviets had sent the first space traveler -- a dog named Laika aboard Sputnik 2, which survived for several days in the space ship before dying of heat exhaustion. The initial U.S. attempts in 1959 to send satellites to the moon (the series of probes called Rangers) were largely unsuccessful. As a result, space exploration and the state of the nation's defenses against nuclear attack by the Soviet Union became a major election issue in the U.S. presidential election of 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon -- the then Vice President. Observing that U.S. was losing the strategic "space race" with the Soviet Union, Kennedy asserted during the campaign, "we cannot run second in this vital race. To insure peace and freedom, we must be first." (quoted by Edward and Linda Ezell)

Kennedy Takes Charge

After being elected as President, Kennedy set about revitalizing the country's space program. Just ten days after his inauguration, Kennedy appointed James E. Webb as the head of NASA, directing him to prepare a plan for wiping out the Soviet lead over the U.S. In space exploration. While the U.S. administration was still deliberating on the desired direction of the U.S. space program, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the earth on April 12, 1961. It was another propaganda coup for the Soviets who exploited it to the full to prove to the world that communism was the superior system for galvanizing human productivity, and still another blow to the American image at home and abroad. It further convinced Kennedy for the need to take the lead in the space race with USSR.

On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy declared in a special address to Congress:.".. this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth." The Congress approved the President's proposal and approved funds for NASA to prepare for a manned lunar landing. (Chaikan) The nation was now committed to beat the Soviets in the space race to the moon.

Cold War Maneuver

There can be little doubt that the massive space program launched by NASA to put a man on the moon "before the end of the decade" in the early sixties was the result of a Cold War maneuver by the U.S. that would probably not have happened if not for the competition with Communist Russia. After the Bay of Pigs debacle, and the series of successes by the Soviet Union in the space, Kennedy felt obliged to redeem himself and to restore a sense of achievement among the Americans. The NASA moon project was thus accorded the highest priority by the U.S. government not just for its scientific worth, but also its strategic defense related importance and as a "feel good" propaganda ploy. (Levine 82)

President Kennedy's untimely assassination did not affect progress on the space program in the least. In fact, as observed by Rita G. Koman, "the project took on the aura of near-sacredness as President Johnson pushed for its completion in the name of the slain president." This was done despite growing skepticism from many scientists who felt that unmanned flights, rather than manned flights to the moon could accomplish more scientifically. In order to implement Kennedy's vision of landing a man on the moon before the end of the decade, NASA chalked up a plan consisting of three phases -- Project Mercury, with six missions into outer space; Project Gemini, an intermediate program; and Apollo, the largest and most ambitious of the three that would culminate in the manned moon landings. From this point onwards, the U.S. began to catch up with the Soviet space program and was ultimately able to overtake it as the Soviets began to be hampered by a lack of funds for an enormously expensive exercise.

Was the Space Program Worth the Expenditure?

As we have already observed, space programs cost an enormous amount of money. The Apollo Moon program, for example cost approximately $100 billion in 1990s dollars. (Chaikan, Para on "The High Cost of Space Exploration.") It is, therefore, pertinent to ask whether such expenditure that was spent on space exploration was worthwhile. Arguments can be found both for and against the question. It is evident that the cutting edge research and development that is necessarily involved in such high-profile projects expand scientific knowledge and leads to a number of spin-offs. For instance, the satellites that were launched in the late 50s and early sixties have led to a communication revolution in the subsequent decades. Satellite signals now carry TV programs, radio signals and an enormous amount of information to almost every home. Satellites have also provided us with detailed maps of the earth, information about the earth's geology, surveillance of the ozone layer, and much more. They have also offered new means to explore the universe, as space probes equipped with onboard cameras and telescopes have been used to discover…

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